In 1957, Terrence Roberts was a 16-year-old student who made civil rights history when he volunteered to become one of the first black students to enroll in Little Rock High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, a decision with impact that is still being felt today.

More than half a century later, Roberts returned to UCLA, where he earned a master’s degree in social welfare in 1970 and served as assistant dean of the then-School of Social Welfare from 1985 to 1993, to share his experience of being one of the courageous Little Rock Nine. The black students had to attend school under military escort through the entire school year and endure beatings and vicious epithets when the national spot turned them into the faces of the nascent civil rights movement.  

Roberts reflected on a life involved in social justice during a UCLA Luskin Lecture hosted by the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs Dec. 4 at the California African American Museum.

Now with the benefit of time and distance, Roberts looks back at this experience as part of a centuries-long struggle for equality. In 1999, President Clinton honored the Little Rock Nine with the Congressional Gold Medal.

“This stuff has been going on since well before you showed up,” Roberts said to his audience. From 1619 until 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that school segregation was unconstitutional, minorities were fundamentally unequal to the white majority in North America, he said.

“It was legal to discriminate, to ‘do unto,’ to lynch, to murder,” Roberts said, and violent actions had the full protection of U.S. law.

On their first day at Little Rock High School, he and eight other African-American students were prevented from entering the building by an angry mob backed by the Arkansas National Guard, who had been activated by Gov. Orval Faubus. It wasn’t until three weeks later, when President Dwight Eisenhower took control of Faubus’ troops and sent in the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army, that Roberts was able to begin attending classes.

Although laws have changed since the middle of the last century, Roberts said, changes to the legal system are just the beginning. But they are — given the recent protests in reaction to police officer-involved deaths in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York — clearly an inadequate solution to resolve longstanding racial tensions, he noted.

As he contemplated a way forward after the “horrendous, cold-blooded murders” of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, Roberts cautioned of the long, difficult road ahead. “This has been going on for centuries,” he said.

“This stuff is so woven into the fabric of our society, it is so difficult to disentangle ourselves, especially when there is a lack of will to do so,” he added.

At its heart, Roberts framed the basic problem of racial inequality as a dispute over space — defined by “physical, psychological and economic” boundaries within which the powerful majority feels threatened by the onset of a competing community.

Roberts crossed a physical boundary by breaking the color barrier in high school, but in the decades since, he has seen the resistance of the racial majority as a reaction to a perceived intrusion by outsiders.

In the face of this framing of the problem, Roberts counseled that protests ought to be nonviolent if they hope to advance the racial conversation and lead to progress. In response to a question squaring Roberts’ view with the facts that Brown and Garner were killed by police despite their nonviolent actions, Roberts said, “Death looms above us all.

“The powers that be will see you for who you are — nonviolent or angry — and take you out of their space.” Violent actions by the minority will only make the problem worse, he said.

Many families attended the talk, and a member of the audience told Roberts about her desire to have her son hear what Roberts had gone through a half-century prior, so that her son could put his own experience in perspective. Roberts had an optimistic message for the young people in the audience: “Learn as much as you can learn, so you can know the history that is you. Prepare for a world of no barriers whatsoever.”

Throughout the talk, Roberts exhibited the discipline and unflappability he learned in the unwelcoming halls of Little Rock High, qualities which he nurtured throughout his career as an educator and consultant. He currently heads a human capital management consulting firm. When a member of the audience asked how he managed to control his emotions in the face of daily abuse as a student, he said, “My emotions are under my control. Anger and rage are possible choices, but they’re not the only ones.”

Going forward, Roberts urged his listeners to change the culture around “the racial conversation.” With more than 50 years of continued racial tension, despite changes to laws, progress will only be realized through persistent pressure on cultural values, he said. After all, laws without community support aren’t enough.

“When you do things that seem forward, progressive, you have to check with the will of the people,” he said.

This story was adapted from one posted in the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.